By Corey Kollbocker
I'll try my best not to dance a little jig as I write this, but let it be known that as a Bulls fan, I am absolutely beaming.
This past week has been a nervous one. While the wider basketball world waited on tenterhooks to hear where LeBron James planned to play next season, Chicagoans were preoccupied with Melo-watch, praying that one of the league's most effortless scorers would choose to bolster our anemic offense, which, paired with the perennially dominant Thibodeau defense, figured to rocket the Bulls to the top of the Eastern Conference. By noon on Saturday, it was clear Melo was staying with the Knicks, and Bulls fans were left wondering what big moves the front office had left to make. We needn't have feared--Gar Forman and the Bulls front office had a plan.
Within two hours, Pau Gasol announced his intention to play with the Bulls next season. There had been grumblings linking the skilled big man with a move to Chicago, but after the seemingly unending vacillations that overshadowed the first week of free agency, Gasol's decision developed with surprising speed. Even with rumors of a $10m/year sign-and-trade, the Gasol signing was garnering majority approval. But when, by Sunday night, Gasol was signed outright for $22million over 3 years, Bulls fans everywhere should have been jumping with joy.
Gasol is a four-time All Star, a two-time NBA champion, and a legitimate seven-footer who has earned over $137 million during his NBA tenure. He has career averages of over 18 points and 9 rebounds, and has been a model of consistency throughout the last decade, tallying 17.4 points and 9.7 rebounds last season. He is a consummate pro, an all-around nice guy, and though he is 34, is coming off a renaissance year where he succeeded despite a horrific team and Mike D'Antoni's absolute inability to use him correctly. He averaged 3.4 assists per game with an 18.7 Assist % last season, making him one of the elite post-passers in the league, which when paired with post-passing guru Joakim Noah, will make for the best facilitating front court in the league (arguably the best front court period when you consider the three-man rotation of Noah, Gasol, and Taj Gibson). I could go on, but the point is Gasol still has a lot of game, and at around $7million/season, the Bulls picked him up for a song.
Some more negative Bulls fans are labeling Gasol another Carlos Boozer signing, an overrated backup plan that'll bring disappointment and grief. That's nonsense. Gasol is coming cheap, unlike Boozer did, and very unlike Boozer, Gasol is a probable Hall of Famer. His winning pedigree at a discount is a fantastic signing, and one that will not hamstring the Bull's financial situation in the future.
Gasol does have injury concerns: he missed 55 games over the last two seasons. But even if he misses another 25 games this season, he represents a massive upgrade over Carlos Boozer (he'll actually play fourth quarter minutes), and would arguably be worth the money just as a locker room presence. Not only does Gasol bring veteran experience and a championship mentality, but he also represents the ideal mentor for incoming Euroleague star Nikola Mirotic, who by Sunday afternoon had finalized a buyout with his current club, Real Madrid, allowing him to sign a contract in Chicago.
Like Mirotic, Gasol was once labelled the best player not in the NBA and the best young player in both the Euroleague and the Spanish ACB. He understands the pressures of coming to the NBA with high expectations after massive success in Europe. And while Mirotic is originally Montenegrin, he is also a Spanish-speaker who has played for Spain internationally, meaning he shares both a language and nationality with Gasol. The positive impact Gasol will undoubtedly have on Mirotic's development cannot be overstated.
Mirotic's deal with the Bulls should work in the franchise's favor as well. Mirotic's contract is no longer bound by the rookie scale (he was drafted over three years ago), and the Bulls will have to shell out a full $17 million over his first three seasons, although $3 million of that goes to buy out his contract with Real Madrid. But a salary around the mid-level exception for a proven shooter (46.1% from three in Euroleague play) who stands a full 6'10" and possesses elite offensive vision and finesse is not unreasonable. As you can read here, stretch bigs are commanding more and more money, and none on the market have the potential upside of the 23-year-old Mirotic. Fran Fraschilla, ESPN's expert on international prospects, said recently that had Mirotic been in the draft this year, he would have cracked the top four picks, explaining that while he possesses significant potential for improvement, he also would have been the most NBA-ready player in the draft. Considering all of this, Bulls fans should be ecstatic about Mirotic's move to the NBA: we're looking at a potential 50/40/90 shooter a few years down the road.
So within twenty-four hours, the Bulls went from missing out on the Melo sweepstakes to signing two immensely skilled big men whose combined impact should generate significant offense for a team that sorely needs it. Trust me, this is good.
But this hasn't been the only good news for Bulls fans over the last few days. In Summer League, Doug McDermott officially announced his arrival. After a slow first game that saw him turning the ball over and trying to do too much, Dougie McBuckets came out Sunday night and scorched the nets to a tune of 31 points, including 5-9 from three and a perfect 12-12 from the free throw line. He even threw down a nice transition dunk for those who criticize his athleticism. Another 50/40/90 shooter down the road? It's certainly plausible.
Tony Snell's performance in Summer League has also been tantalizing. Over the first two games he scored 50 points, shooting 10-21 from downtown, and showing an array of scoring moves as well as solid defense. He's been practicing, and at this point looks like one of the steals of last year's draft.
The Bulls 2014 second-round draft pick, Cameron Bairstow, has also shown some game. While his stat lines have not been particularly impressive, he's shown toughness and physicality down low, as well as some serviceable moves to his left hand. I can already tell Thibodeau is going to love him. He's a big body who puts in big effort.
Added bonus: The Bulls resigned franchise favorite Kirk Hinrich to a small, two-year deal. Details have not yet been released, but he will likely be signed for slightly above the veteran's minimum. Hinrich is aging, but he's a fantastic defender and a great clubhouse guy.
Oh. Also lets not forget that the Bulls are adding a top ten player in the NBA this offseason--former league-MVP Derrick Rose. It was announced Monday morning that Rose would participate in the Team USA mini camp later this month. With his prior international experience and strong relationship with the USA coaching staff (Thibodeau is an assistant), it is likely he'll make the team for the FIBA World Cup. Bulls fans could hope for no better opportunity to get Rose back in rhythm. Playing at a high level of competition, while sharing the court with elite players who will take pressure away, is the ideal way for Rose to prepare for the season. His readiness for the USA mini-camp might be the best news of the weekend for the Bulls.
To sum things up, we may have failed to land Carmelo Anthony, but short of that, the Bulls have had just about the best weekend imaginable. Some people are hedging their bets--they're unconvinced of Pau's durability, they doubt Rose's return to form; but make no mistake, things are looking up.
As most likely realize, the Bull's flexibility to make these moves comes at a price. That price is Carlos Boozer (well, really its the $16 million Chicago owes him). Chicago is expected to officially use the amnesty clause on Boozer within the next week.
Now it's true: Boozer's contract is nauseously bloated, his defense has gotten progressively worse, and his double-doubles are recorded without a seeming impact on the game around him. Boozer has been frustrating in Chicago. He was a consolation signing after missing out on all the major free agents of 2010 (Lebron, Wade, Bosh, etc), and no Bulls fan has ever forgiven him for catching us at a time we felt vulnerable and were compelled to spend so much money. He barely played a fourth quarter minute last season. But, despite all of that, Boozer has been a memorable Bull. He's had great plays and great games. He's entertained a lot of us with basketball, but mostly with his constant shouting and on-court antics. He gave us the funniest Mic'd up of all time. He has been oft-maligned, and I've taken plenty of shots at him as well, but I must admit, a small part of me will miss him.
If nobody picks you up off of waivers Carlos (and they most likely will, you've still got game), come sign with us at the Vet min. I'd be happy to see you back. Thanks for all the Space Jams.